P R O L O G U E
From across the ravaged courtyard of the Jade Academy, the Core agent known as Sandman watched the weathered Navajo and his companions head for the mountain trail leading to the forest below. Sandman ducked into the shadows, remaining there until long after the travelers were gone. Then he turned and jogged back down the trail that led to the garden near the cliffs.
Hidden back amid the rubble, the soldiers under his command stood at attention. “Are we moving out, sir?” asked one of his men.
Some of the soldiers rose, checking their weapons and equipment.
“Mission review,” said Sandman. “Neutralize the monks if necessary. The students are not to be harmed.”
“Rules of engagement, sir?” asked another of his soldiers.
“We’re only cleared for non-lethal force. Absolutely no explosives or live fire. Can’t risk the noise.”
The soldiers saluted as one. “Sir, yes sir.”
“Radio silence. I will handle anyone who attempts to engage,”
commanded Sandman. “Not a peep. I want a bow on this before they even know we’re here.”
“Sir, yes sir.”
Sandman nodded in approval and returned their salute. “Get some rest. We roll out at zero three hundred.”
Their execution was flawless. In the stillness found only in the dead of night, Sandman and his men crept into the courtyard occupied by the sleeping refugees. The mountain had continued to rumble
and shake throughout the night, causing many of the students to have trouble sleeping, especially on the cold hard ground.
Sandman sensed those who were still awake as easily as he would a bonfire ablaze in the dark. With a wisp of anima, he sent each person into a slumber so deep that even being lifted and carried wouldn’t
rouse them. The children were easy, their minds too poorly trained and undisciplined to shield themselves from his power. Some of the monks were tougher and required several attempts before they succumbed to his hypnotic suggestions.
One monk in particular kept resisting. Sandman picked his way through the mass of sleeping bodies until he located the monk in question.
“You must be their leader,” said Sandman. The diminutive monk at his feet twitched, as if he were struggling to break free. He looked like an infant thrashing in a crib, restless with nightmares but unable to wake.
Sandman’s soldiers wove through the sleeping crowd. One by one, they picked up the children and carried them down the path to the garden. There, the ropes he and his men had used to scale the cliff were attached to each child to lower them down the mountain.
The process was slow, taking every minute of darkness. Once the sun comes up, the biological imperative to wake will fight against my control, thought Sandman as he turned to the nearest soldier and signaled him to quicken the pace.
They lowered the last student shortly before sunrise. Sandman stood in the remaining crowd of sleeping bodies, now nothing but bald, middle-aged men. The baby-faced leader stirred once again, thrashing from side to side.
Sandman sent the tiny monk a deep hypnotic suggestion for at least the tenth time, causing the monk to roll over and resume his slumber in silence. No nightmares for you. At least, not yet, thought Sandman.
But don’t worry, the nightmare will be real enough when you wake.
With a final glance around the clearing, Sandman slipped from the circle and headed down the path to the garden. There, he strapped himself to the harness at the edge of the cliff and began his descent.
The earthquake that woke Bobby Ether from his nightmare wasn’t a typical Los Angeles tremor. Growing up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, Bobby had experienced enough quakes to know most of them lasted only a few seconds— over by the time you realized they were happening. Not this one.
The entire room shook as Bobby sat upright in bed and rubbed his eyes. The windows rattled and the freestanding dresser in the corner bounced up and down. In a stupor, the long-legged sixteen-year-old stumbled out of bed and headed for his desk to climb underneath.
Nausea washed over him as the floor heaved. Still reliving the nightmare from moments before he awoke, Bobby scurried under his desk before the rumbling finally subsided. Climbing out slowly, he moved to the window, where a foot-long crack had appeared in the drywall below the sill.
It was almost midnight. The next-door neighbor’s house was quiet and dark: no lights or alarms. The water in their backyard swimming pool stood placid.
What the heck?
Bobby brushed locks of wavy blond hair off his forehead, exposing beads of cold sweat. Racing downstairs, he turned on the television in the den and flipped through the channels, but there was no news about a quake. It was only a dream, he told himself. The earthquake, the nightmare, none of it was real.
The phone rang and Bobby jumped. Wiping his suddenly clammy hands on his pajamas, he headed across the dining room to the phone in the kitchen and snatched the receiver off the hook.
“Hello?” he said.
The female voice was cold and mechanical. “Is this Bobby Ether?”
“Who is this?”
“This is Saint Michelle’s hospital. I’m calling from the emergency center.”
Bobby felt the blood drain from his face.
“Hello, are you there?” asked the woman from the hospital.
Bobby’s mouth had turned bone dry.
“We need you to come to the hospital right away,” said the woman. “There’s been an accident.”
The phone slipped from Bobby’s hand, nearly falling to the floor before he caught it and hauled it back up.
The voice on the other end was still speaking. “Sir? Are you still there?”
Bobby closed his eyes as tears pooled once again. In his mind, he saw the accident exactly as it had been in his nightmare. His parents were in his father’s SUV, driving home from their Wednesday “date night” dinner and a movie. As they crossed the intersection at Chapel and La Grange, a truck on their right ran a red light and crashed into them.
“Was it a man with long hair?” asked Bobby. “In an old pickup?”
After a long pause, the woman said, “I’m afraid I can’t discuss other patients’ information.”
It didn’t matter. Bobby already knew the answer. The longhaired man had been drinking and didn’t react in time to the changing light. His truck had barreled through the intersection and T-boned his father’s Explorer just behind the passenger seat occupied by his mother.
The two vehicles had careened off in opposite directions. The pickup smashed through the window of a nearby delicatessen. The Explorer slid across oncoming traffic before slamming headfirst into a lamp post.
“You should check on the other driver,” said Bobby flatly.
“He’s hurt pretty bad too.”
“Sir, do you have someone who can bring you here?”
There was another long silence as Bobby shook his head.
“Sir, I can send someone to pick you up. Can you give me your address, please?”
Without responding, Bobby set the phone down and headed for his mom’s Prius parked on the street. Grabbing her keys off of the console table, he flung open the front door and froze.
A woman stood in the doorway, arm extended to knock.
Somewhere in her fifties, she looked like she could have been a supermodel in her younger years—tall and slender, with high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. Dressed all in white, she wore an elegantly tailored dress suit with a golden silk scarf to match her hair.
Bobby took a step back and the woman stepped forward, towering over him in four-inch Prada heels. “Just who I was looking for,” she exclaimed.
Bobby took another involuntary step back, opening space for the woman to cross the threshold. She did so, closing the door quickly behind her.
Bobby retreated across the foyer to the base of the stairs.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Are you from the hospital?”
Even as he asked the question, Bobby knew the answer.
He’d only just hung up with the hospital seconds ago. Besides, he hadn’t given them his address.
The woman scanned the room, seemingly memorizing every detail of the small but tidy three-bedroom house. Bobby had never been ashamed of his home before, but something about this woman’s gaze made him wish the house were nicer.
“Well, this place is . . . cozy,” she said finally. “Not quite what I pictured for Jeremiah’s family, but I suppose to each his own.”
The mention of his grandfather caught Bobby by surprise. He relaxed his grip on the car keys and leaned against the banister, trying to act casual as he asked, “How do you know my grandfather?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed for a split second, then she extended her arm. “My name is Cassandra,” she said, offering her hand stiffly, like a soldier forced to salute. “Your grandfather and I go way back.”
“But how do you—” began Bobby.
Before he finished, his stomach let loose a tremendous growl. Bobby’s insides turned queasy and his knees buckled. The keys slipped from his hand and hit the hardwood floor with a clank. Cassandra caught Bobby under the arms and hoisted him back up before he followed the keys to the ground.
“Well, I can see I got here none too soon,” she said with a heavy sigh. For an older woman, she was surprisingly strong.
“Come on, let’s get you to the kitchen.”
Bobby lacked the strength to protest. Arms flopping at his sides, feet dragging, he let her escort him across the dining room to the narrow kitchen that ran down the left side of the house.
Depositing Bobby unceremoniously at the kitchen table,
Cassandra rifled through the refrigerator. Bobby leaned over the tabletop, gripping his stomach as he fought to keep down his late-night snack of Hawaiian pizza and chicken wings.
Cassandra pulled something out of her pocket and stuffed it into the blender on the Formica countertop. Adding an assortment of vegetables and juice from the fridge, she ran the machine and poured the contents into a glass.
“Drink this,” she said, shoving the cup into his hands.
Bobby took a deep breath and pulled himself upright.
“What’s in it?”
“It’ll help you recover from your anima event,” said Cassandra.
Bobby sniffed and thrust the cup out to arm’s length. It smelled like cat urine mixed with moldy cheese. “My what-awhat?”
Cassandra pushed the cup toward his face. “Drink!”
Something about her words echoed in his head like a siren’s song. Before he knew it, he’d drained the contents. Cassandra leaned against the counter, watching him with a slight smile as he gagged from the aftertaste.
When he could speak, Bobby said, “How did you—”
“I’ll explain later,” said Cassandra. “Right now, we need to leave.”
Still wobbly but feeling stronger by the second, Bobby rose.
“Right now, I need to get to the hospital.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option,” said Cassandra. “It’s the first place they’ll look.”
Bobby opened his mouth to protest. Then the doorbell rang.
“Just as I feared.” Cassandra pushed Bobby toward the dining room. “Quickly, go pack a bag! I’ll buy us some time, but you must hurry.”
Bobby walked to the front window and peered through the blinds. Two men stood on the porch directly below the lamp. One was reed thin, with oily, slicked-back hair and pockmarked cheeks. The other was pudgy, with a receding hairline, heavy jowls, and cruel eyes that reminded Bobby of a hyena. On the
curb behind them, men in black uniforms piled out of a line of black SUVs glimmering under the incandescent street lamps.
“What’s with the rejects from Saturday Night Fever?” asked Bobby, noting the pastel suits, huge lapels, and bell-bottom pants of the two men on the porch.
Cassandra swept past Bobby and peeked between the slates.
“Just my luck,” she grumbled. “Bobby, get upstairs and get your things. I have a plan, but you must hurry.”
Bobby drifted to the staircase and stopped with one hand on the banister.
Cassandra touched his arm. “Go on,” she said. “I’ll take care of this.”
He searched her face for a long moment. Then he rushed upstairs and began to pack.
As Bobby hurriedly threw clothes into his bag, he heard the front door open and Cassandra’s voice. It was one of the last things he expected.
“Hello, Simpkins. Hayward,” she said. “What brings you by this evening?”
“Cassandra! What a surprise,” the man said.
“That much is obvious from the blank look on your face,”
said Cassandra. “Be a dear and close your mouth, won’t you, Hayward? I can feel my hair starting to frizz.”
Cassandra stepped outside and closed the door behind her.
Bobby set down his bag and moved to the top of the stairs. The voices were muffled, but through the transom window above the front door, he could make out the speakers’ faces and piece together what they were saying.
“You had best watch your tone,” said Hayward, the fat man with the cruel eyes.
“And explain what you’re doing here,” said Simpkins, the skinny one. “Do we have a situation?”
“Relax,” said Cassandra. “The brass just thought it might be best for me to assist.”
“What are you gonna do?” asked Hayward. “Read the kid a bedtime story?”
Cassandra’s response sounded well-rehearsed, just like her answers to Bobby. “This kid has been off the grid until now. Which means you have no idea what he’s capable of.”
Hayward scoffed. “He’s one lousy kid. I could handle this entire job by myself.”
“We didn’t receive any instructions about you assisting,” said Simpkins. “I think it’s best we handle this on our own.”
“You felt the quake, right?” said Cassandra. “Are you sure you want to be on his bad side if he experiences another anima event?”
Bobby paused. There was that phrase again—anima event.
“We got the hospital report,” said Hayward. “We know exactly what triggered him.”
“But you don’t know what else might—”
“Enough small talk,” said Simpkins. “Where’s the boy, Cassandra?”
“He’s inside, but he’s still pretty shaken up. The hospital called—he knows his dream was real.”
“Then we should go in and comfort him,” Hayward chuckled.
The doorknob jiggled.
Cassandra held her ground. “Remember what happened with the Thompson kid?” she said coolly. “How was the recovery process? Not too painful, I hope.”
“Kiss my—” said Hayward. Simpkins cut him off.
“Have it your way, Cassandra,” said Simpkins. “Go back inside and get the kid. Hayward, get back to the truck and radio this in. Find out why we weren’t informed that Miss Congeniality here was called in to assist.”
Bobby didn’t wait to hear anymore. Shoving the remaining clothes he’d pulled out into his bag, he cast a final glance around the room for anything else worth taking. He paused at an old photo on the corner of his desk. It was a picture of him, his parents, and his grandfather Jeremiah at the beach during one of Grandpa’s rare visits. Bobby still remembered that day. Grandpa had been animated and intense that afternoon, warning Bobby about all sorts of things that made no sense— cautioning him to keep away from wild animals and to always carry a flashlight. Bizarre as he was, it had been nice to see the old man.
Bobby lifted the picture and the corner caught on something. Pulling harder, he exposed a tarnished silver necklace with a stone pendant shaped like a flower. He remembered it vaguely, a gift from Grandpa, given to him the day the photo was taken. Far too feminine for a teenage boy, it had sat on Bobby’s desk for years, buried beneath piles of comic books and video games. On impulse, Bobby stuffed both the picture and the pendant into his pocket and headed for the window. He had one foot
over the windowsill when the door creaked open behind him. “I hope you weren’t planning on leaving without me,” said Cassandra.
Bobby froze, half in, half out of the window. “You lied to me,” he said. “You know those guys down there. And now you’re going to turn me over to them.”
“I didn’t lie to you; I lied to them to buy us some time.”
Bobby grimaced. “How do I know you aren’t lying to me about lying to them?”
“Because I am going to help you escape.”
Bobby swung his other leg out over the sill. “Thanks, but I’ve got that covered.”
“Suit yourself,” said Cassandra. “But you should know they’ll see you from the curb.” Bobby shot a quick glance outside. Six men, each wearing dark military garb, stood by the vans less than fifty feet away.
“Those are Core agents, sent to bring you in,” said Cassandra. She retreated to the door. “I’m headed out the back. You can either come with me, or take your chances out the window.”
Bobby balanced on the sill, staring into the distance. “What the heck is a Core agent? And what’s an anima event?”
The men by the vans broke off into teams. Two of them headed down either side of the house. At least two more agents remained by the curb.
Cassandra disappeared down the steps. With a sigh, Bobby climbed back into his bedroom, grabbed his duffle bag, and hurried after her.
On tiptoes, they crept through the house to the back porch, located off the pantry, beyond the kitchen. Cassandra eased the door open with Bobby at her hip. The backyard was dark with no lights on except a single bulb by the garage entrance. Gravel crunched off to their left as the Core agents crept up the
“They’re coming!” Bobby whispered to Cassandra. She held a finger to her lips and pointed through the darkness to the barely visible ivy-covered fence bordering the back alley.
From the front of the house, Simpkins shouted, “Hey, Cassandra! HQ has no info about an assist. Open up now or we’re coming in.” Bobby started across the lawn, but Cassandra grabbed his shoulder. A few seconds later, a loud clash of shattered hinges and splintered wood sounded as the front door was smashed in.
Cassandra threw open the back door. “Go now!” she yelled.
With his duffle bag bouncing on his shoulders, Bobby raced to the back fence. Encumbered as he was, he got there far ahead of Cassandra, who struggled with her high heels on the thick grass.
Bobby reached the back gate and stared in horror. A heavy chain wrapped around the latch, secured by a thick padlock. Behind him, light flickered in the gap between the garage and the corner of the house as the Core agents continued up the driveway. No going back for the key.
Bobby raced along the back fence, trampling through the vegetable garden until he found a spot not covered in ivy. A light flashed in his direction. A split second later, Simpkins shouted and broke into a sprint across the lawn.
“Stop! . . . Come back here!”
Bobby tossed his duffle bag over the fence and climbed.
Meanwhile, Cassandra reached the fence and paused at the gate.
“What are you doing?” he yelled. “Climb!”
Instead, Cassandra grasped the hefty padlock in both hands as Bobby reached the top of the fence. Dropping to the ground on the far side, Bobby took a moment to gather his bag. When he straightened up, Cassandra stood next to him, the gate slightly ajar. She pushed the gate shut, replaced the chain, and clicked the padlock back into place.
Bobby froze. “Hey, that gate was locked! How did you—?”
Cassandra brushed his question aside with a wave. “No time for that. We need to leave, now!”
One house down, a white convertible Porsche sat in the middle of the alley. Cassandra slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Behind them, the back fence rattled as their pursuers reached the wall and began to climb. Bobby threw his bag in the back of the Porsche and leapt over the door into his seat. Cassandra winced at the dark smudges his sneakers left on the leather upholstery. She revved the engine, sending up a deafening roar as two agents dropped into the alley.
The one in front pulled a pistol. “Stop!” he yelled.
Cassandra slammed the Porsche into gear, rocketing down the narrow backstreet at breakneck speed. There was a loud crack as a bullet lodged in the back bumper.
Cassandra tossed her middle finger in the air. “You’ll pay for that!”
Bobby held his breath until they’d reached the end of the block and turned the corner. He leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath as the men disappeared behind him, ditched like a forgotten dream in the dawn of a new day.